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Today, the application and admissions process for students applying to private schools is not dissimilar to the process for prospective college students.

What Is On the ISEE?

The ISEE tests students on Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning (only for Middle and Upper Level), Reading Comprehension, and Mathematics Achievement. The test is spread out over five sections, the first four alternating between verbal and math, and the fifth section:the essay. Though the essay is not scored, it is photocopied and sent to the schools to which a student applies.

For Lower Level students, the test will last approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, not counting orientation and breaks; for Middle/Upper Level students, it will last approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Students receive one point for every correct answer and zero points for incorrect answers and unanswered questions. The points are then added together to form two raw scores, one for Math and one for Verbal, which are each then scaled to a score between 760 and 940. There is no composite score.

Along with the scaled scores on each section, students receive a percentile rank and an accompanying stanine.  The percentile rank for each section represents the percentage of test-takers who achieved a score less than or equal to the student's score. In other words, if a student has an 85 percentile rank on Math, this means that the student scored better than 85 percent of other test-takers. 

Also given is a stanine (a number from 1-9), each of which corresponds to a range of percentile ranks, as shown here: 

Percentile Rank Stanine
1-3 1
4-10 2
11-22 3
23-39 4
40-59 5
60-76 6
77-88 7
89-95 8
96-99 9

The stanines help make more sense of the percentile ranks.  For instance, we might initially assume that a student with a 76 percentile rank on Verbal and a 63 percentile rank on Math is far stronger in one area than the other.  However, by consulting the stanines, we can see that this student is in fact quite consistent academically, with a solid stanine of 6 in both categories. 

Probably the most confusing thing about the ISEE is that there's really no such thing as passing or failing. Because each private school determines for itself what an acceptable score is, it is important to know what the average admissible score is for the schools to which the student is applying. Your CATES tutor can help you find the answer.

ISEE Content:

Verbal Reasoning

  • Length: 20 min.
  • Item Types: Synonym recognition and sentence completion

For synonyms, students will be presented with a capitalized word, followed by a list of four other words. Students must select the answer choice that is most nearly the same in meaning as the word in capital letters. For sentence completion, there will be a sentence with one or two words missing and students will have to choose the word or words to fill in the blank(s).

Quantitative Reasoning (for Middle and Upper Level ONLY)

  • Length: 35 min.
  • Item Types: Comparing information and estimating

In this section, students will be presented with two quantities, one in Column A and the other in Column B. Their job will be to compare them and decide if one is greater than the other, if they are equal, or if the relationship cannot be determined.

Reading Comprehension

  • Length: 40 min.
  • Item Types: Reading passages

These questions relate to short passages provided for the student to read during the test. The passages deal with subjects in the humanities, science, and social studies, and the questions test how well students understand the information presented.

Mathematical Achievement

  • Length: 40 min.
  • Item Types: Math problems

Students will be presented with problems in arithmetic, geometry, and algebra, depending on the Level of the test.


  • Length: 30 min.
  • Item Types: Student-written essay

Students are given a topic upon which to write an essay. This section is unscored, but it is provided to schools as a sample of an applicant’s ability to express himself or herself in writing.

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